Animated films often try to reflect the aesthetics of our culture back at us. That can be a dodgy endeavor: For every Ralph Breaks the Internet, we usually get several Emoji Movie–style disasters. Which makes the cluttered, go-for-broke distract-a-thon of The Mitchells vs. the Machines that much more impressive. Here, then, is a picture whose mixed-media cacophony leaves every other movie in the pixelated dust. It’s filled with IG filters and GIFs and emojis and memes and freeze-frames and flying blocks of text, and at times it can’t seem to stick to a single story thread for more than a minute. But its emotional design and trajectory are crystal clear, and the chaos feels like part of a grand plan.
Even the plot is cobbled together from any number of other popular movies, which makes sense given the generally spoofy quality of the whole enterprise. Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is a college-bound film nerd who loves to make goofy videos featuring her dinosaur-obsessed younger brother, Aaron (voiced by director and co-writer Michael Rianda), and their adorable mutt, Monchi. Earnest, eager-to-please mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and klutzy, outdoorsy loser dad Rick (Danny McBride) just don’t understand their daughter. On the eve of Katie’s leaving home for good, her father tosses the girl’s plane ticket and organizes a cross-country road trip for the whole family to drive her to college instead. Katie, needless to say, is mortified.
Elsewhere, the apocalypse is afoot. Mark Bowman (Eric André), the hoodie-wearing tech-bro billionaire head of an Apple-like company called PAL (named for its ubiquitous, artificially intelligent digital assistant, voiced by Olivia Colman, who appears to be embedded in the mobile device of every man, woman, and child on the planet), has introduced his latest innovation: a trusty personal robot that will cook, clean, and basically do everything for you. Within literally seconds (“So we promise you, they will never ever, ever, ever, ever turn evil … Oh no!” — the way the film briskly leans into its clichés is one of its more disarming qualities), the robots take over and start collecting and encasing all humans into individualized, Wi-Fi–enabled pods, which the now-rogue PAL will use to launch us all into space forever. The Mitchells, with their clumsy, bickering, unpredictable, and embarrassingly dorky ways, wind up being the one family that doesn’t get harvested by the killer robots, and it falls to them to save civilization. It’s Little Miss Sunshine meets I, Robot meets The Host meets Zombieland meets WALL-E meets Kill Bill meets, well, all the other movies.
This thing could have been insufferable. Dare I say, this thing should be insufferable. Alas, it’s delightful. Rianda and co-director Jeff Rowe (working with producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have such animated masterpieces as The LEGO Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse to their names) use speed, wit, and a delirious combination of animation styles — mixing variations on 3-D, hand-drawn, and even live-action — to turn these familiar elements into something surprisingly … uh, surprising. The film achieves a start-stop, herky-jerky rhythm all its own as it remixes the nauseatingly recognizable textures of our screen-obsessed, extremely online world in inspired, inventive ways.
In so doing, it commandeers the language of the Beast to describe the Beast itself. The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which premieres today on Netflix, portrays a reality in which the background noise of technology often reveals our true feelings. (Note how, when Katie tells us early in the film that she has “always felt a little different than everyone else,” hand-drawn rainbows flash behind her.) There’s a warning here, of course, about putting all our emotional lives into the objects around us, be they physical or virtual. In one hilarious battle set inside an empty mall, Dawn of the Dead–style, the Mitchells face off against an army of wired, PAL-enabled household items, including carnivorous dryers, angry microwaves, and fiery blenders. It’s all fun and very funny — the smart home goes homicidal — but the dark subtext is undeniable: When we cede to machines the things that make us human, we ourselves become not just replaceable but downright redundant.
If that were all The Mitchells vs. the Machines is, if it were just another scolding cinematic tract about the dangers of too much screen time or Facebook or whatever, it wouldn’t amount to much. Beneath it all, the film has some affection for its attention-deficit universe. Yes, this is a world of artifice where we place our hopes and dreams and fears and resentments into digital bits for all the world to see while refusing to speak such things to the people around us. But that’s also the nature of art, isn’t it? Amid its hyperstylized madness, the movie elevates the creative act, from a hand-carved ornament to a handcrafted YouTube video. It’s in many ways a love song to all the weirdos who can’t quite bring themselves to say the things they need to say and instead express themselves in other, less efficient and convenient ways (which could be, at various times, any of us). This provides an intriguing fold to the stylized lunacy onscreen. Purposefully aggravating yet still beautiful, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is both a takedown and a celebration of our dissonant, tech-obsessed world. It gets us.